Negrini overcomes disease, finds comfort zone with Peninsula Pilots

HAMPTON — Just two years ago, Jordan Negrini couldn't help but wonder if he'd ever be the same baseball player he was growing up, when he was one of the rare kids people buzzed about when he stepped on the diamond in his home state of Hawaii.

All of his skills, strength and even his will to play the game he loved were being sapped by something he couldn't put his finger on. He knew he was losing weight at an alarming rate, and he didn't have much of an appetite, but he didn't have any answers.

Those early days of what would become a diagnosis of ulcerative colitis while he was at Yavapai College, a junior college in Precott, Ariz., are behind him. He still manages the colon disease that includes painful ulcers with a daily regimen of prescription drugs and dietary restrictions, but at least he's back to competing at a high level this summer with the Peninsula Pilots.

"The way I played before I got sick, and the way I play now, it doesn't feel the same," said Negrini, who just finished his junior season at Old Dominion. "Before I got sick, it was just energy all the time out there. Now, I don't feel like the same player at all. I get tired really easy. The medication will affect me, too, at times. I don't like being on that if I don't have to."

Coming into Saturday's game against Morehead City at War Memorial Stadium in Hampton, Negrini was sixth in the wooden-bat Coastal Plain League in batting average (.368) in 11 games played for Peninsula. He's starting at third base and hitting primarily out of the No. 3 and cleanup spots in the batting order.

He was sporting a .684 slugging percentage, and an otherworldly 1.16 OPS. His eight extra-base hits represented 42 percent of the entire team's total in the category. He's the first Hawaiian born player to play for the Pilots in their 14 seasons in the CPL.

His hot start for Peninsula (5-8 before Saturday's game) is actually the continuation of a strong second half of the season at ODU, which finished 30-24 this season. Yet, his overall numbers from the college season weren't indicative of the way he closed the spring for the Monarchs.

He started 53 games at third base for ODU this season, and hit .275 with 21 RBI. In the last 18 games, he hit .366 (26 for 71) to go along with 13 runs scored, five doubles, two home runs and seven RBI.

"Like a lot of kids from junior colleges, he got off to a slow start," ODU coach Chris Finwood said. "It maybe took him a little while to get used to Division I pitching, but in the second half of the season, he really started to come on. He's carried that into the summer obviously.

"A lot of times with junior college guys, you get one really good year out of them and then they sign to play pro ball. Sometimes it takes them a year to kind of figure it out, and then you get a real good senior year out of them. I fully expect him to be a guy that's a pretty good draft pick as a senior. I think he's going to have a monster senior year for us."

Negrini, who is on the Pilots roster along with ODU teammates Tyler Urps, Taylor Ostrich and Connor Myers, arrived in Norfolk last fall a well traveled young man. During his playing days growing up in Kihei, Hawaii on the island of Maui, he was one of 18 players from Hawaii chosen in 2009 to play in Japan against schools from all across Japan in the Japan Goodwill High School Federation.

After coming up a little short on his SAT scores, he chose to head to Yavapai, where he hit .319 with nine stolen bases during the 2011 season. His batting average is even more impressive considering they use wooden bats in the Arizona Community College Athletics Conference, a characteristic that Negrini certainly believes gives him a little edge this summer in the CPL.

"I think I maybe have a feel for it a little more than guys that are swinging the metal all the time," said Negrini, who is 6-foot-3 and 210 pounds. "I like the feel of the wood bat.

"I got more used to it and more comfortable with it right away. I figured I was going to have to get used to it if I was going to go on to the next level."

In the fall of 2011, the symptoms of ulcerative colitis hit him out of nowhere. He was passing blood and ended up losing more than 30 pounds, until he was just under 170.

"It completely changed my diet and the way I eat," said Negrini, who added he avoids spicy foods. "It made a big difference in everything in my life. I was weak. All I wanted to do was sleep. I'd go play baseball, and I just wasn't there. I had no energy. It was a struggle just to get through one game that fall."

His weight loss and fatigue led other schools to stop recruiting Negrini, but ODU stayed on him. He was able to get the disease under control by the spring of 2012, and went on to hit .366 with 22 doubles, 46 RBI and 13 stolen bases in his last season at Yavapai.

Now, he's looking forward to continuing to hone a swing he has tinkered with throughout the spring. Peninsula coach Hank Morgan compares him favorably to another player that had a spin through War Memorial Stadium with the Pilots — former U.Va. and current Washington Nationals' third baseman Ryan Zimmerman.

"I know this sounds almost cliché now, but he reminds me a lot of Ryan Zimmerman when he was here — seriously," Morgan said. "Jordan already has a better handle on the wood bats than Ryan did when he played here. Of course, you have to remember Ryan was only 18 when he played here, and Jordan is 21, but there are some similarities."

"He's smooth. He glides. He's got that peaceful, easy Pacific Ocean-type vibe to his game, which I guess kind of makes sense in his case."

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